Channeling 'Jobs' calls for occasional bouts of jerkiness

Actor/entrepreneur Kutcher acts the entrepreneur in Apple founder biopic -- and sometimes that meant being a jerk.

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Ashton Kutcher

"Jobs" filmmaker Joshua Michael Stern, star Ashton Kutcher and co-star Josh Gad, at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in Chicago. (Alex Garcia/Chicago Tribune / August 9, 2013)

Attempting an innovative shot, the Tribune photographer asked Ashton Kutcher to hold up an iPad in camera mode, but the actor said no because he can't appear to endorse an Apple product.

This made a certain amount of sense, given that Kutcher long has been the high-profile pitchman for Nikon (and the New York Post reported in late July that the 35-year-old actor was close to collecting $10 million to plug Lenovo computers, though no actual deal has since been reported). But then again he is promoting his starring turn in the new Steve Jobs biopic “Jobs,” which opens Friday, and that movie may very well encourage people to view Apple products more favorably.

As directed by Joshua Michael Stern (“Swing Vote”) and written by first-timer Matt Whiteley, Kutcher's version of the Apple founder/visionary is a difficult but no-question-about-it inspirational figure, a man whose interpersonal-relationship challenges can't diminish his intense passion and drive to create those beautiful, brilliantly functional products that have made our world a much better place, don't you know. When Kutcher as Jobs holds up the iPod prototype at the movie's beginning, the applause he receives on screen verges on rapturous.

But Kutcher is not Steve Jobs, although he is a tech-oriented entrepreneur. The model-turned-“That '70s Show”/rom-com/“Two and a Half Men” star is co-founder of the venture capital fund A-Grade Investments and has been an early backer of Spotify, Skype and Foursquare, among many others. Last month Kutcher and “America's Next Top Model” host Tyra Banks announced a new social shopping platform called the Hunt.

So when he and Stern sat down recently in a downtown hotel lounge to talk “Jobs,” Stern soon was picking his star's brain on such matters as the genesis of the online short-video service Vine and the AirBeam video-monitoring system. Josh Gad, the Broadway “Book of Mormon” star who plays Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak in the film, walked in as the conversation was shifting to obsessiveness, a quality shared by many of those tech folks with whom Kutcher has been doing business.

“The guys who win are obsessed,” Kutcher said in his precisely articulated way. “Like it doesn't matter if there's an army pointing guns at them saying, ‘You can't build this.' They go, ‘Yes, I can.'”

Does he share such an obsession?

“Um, I was obsessed with this film, and I'm still somewhat obsessed with that,” Kutcher said, steering the conversation to the promotional business at hand. “That was a pretty big obsession for me.”

“I was obsessed with the film,” Stern added. “I think each of us in our own way was obsessed.”

“I'm obsessed with Ashton's hat,” Gad deadpanned. “I'm obsessed with it because it works for Ashton, but for me I would look like the ranger from Yogi Bear, or kind of a Hassidic Jew in Manhattan.”

About that brown hat: Kutcher had a story.

“I was outside of London when the bombing happened in Boston,” he said. “I happened to be wearing a Boston hat at the time. Just coincidentally. I'm not really a Boston fan. I just had a Boston hat, and I was wearing the Boston hat, and this kid asked me to trade the Boston hat for his hat.”

“You're kidding me,” said Gad, 32.

“And I was like, ‘I think you need the Boston hat,' and I gave him the Boston hat, and he gave me this hat.”

“It's a good hat,” Stern said. “Also, you have the face that could pull off any hat.”

“I feel like Mumford & Sons,” Kutcher said. “I feel like one of the Lumineers.”

But back to the movie: Stern and his cast did face a formidable task. Jobs' life, which ended at age 56 in October 2011 after a long bout with pancreatic cancer, can be broken down into many, many chapters, and if you don't leave a bunch out, “it's the longest movie in history,” Kutcher said.

Stern, who was brought onto the project after Jobs' death, focuses on the mid-1970s founding of Apple through Jobs' ouster and eventual return to launch the iMac in 1998 — a timeline in which “you do get the sense of who he was and what he was about and what he was going to become without answering (everything),” the director said. The iPod, teased in the opening, doesn't return, and Pixar, the iPhone and Jobs' negotiations to put the Beatles catalog on iTunes will have to wait for the mini-series, or something.

Even screenwriter Aaron Sorkin, who's writing a rival Jobs biopic based on Walter Isaacson's 656-page biography, “Steve Jobs,” is narrowing his scope. He said his screenplay will include just three long scenes in real time set at three key moments: the launches of the Macintosh computer, the between-Apple-stints NeXT computer and the iPod. The Sorkin movie still has no cast, director or release date.

Stern, by the way, said he didn't read the Isaacson book, but Gad did.

“I read it to get insight into Steve Wozniak,” Gad said. “There's less material out there to describe Wozniak's journey, so for me it was invaluable. Yeah, I think that you have to be aware of that material because right now it's the closest thing we have to an autobiography. But there's something about that book that in a way is remarkable because it doesn't paint the kindest portrait of a man, especially considering it had his blessing, in that he's described as a bit of a monster here and there.”

“I don't know that it had his complete blessing ultimately,” Kutcher said, adding: “I would say that our film in a similar but dissimilar way doesn't always portray him (through) his best qualities. However, that being said, he's a human being, and he was flawed and I think had an awareness of his flaws and reconciled many of them.”

Any Jobs film must address this figure's contrary nature: someone who felt rejection from having been put up for adoption yet failed to acknowledge his own daughter for years, someone who cared deeply about improving people's lives yet could be brutal to those around him. What's fascinating about Isaacson's book and Jobs' story in general is that they make you wonder about the nature of creativity and whether Jobs could have had the kind of success he had without pushing so hard and being such an SOB.

Does one need to be the way Jobs was to be as incredible as he was?

“No,” Kutcher said.

Did he have to be that way?

“Yes,” Kutcher said.

In Kutcher's own experiences with creative geniuses, “some of them are (jerks), and some of them aren't.”

“That's absolutely accurate,” Gad said. “I've seen success work both ways, where people who reach the top of their profession are actually genuinely very kind, and then you see people who are very shrewd, a la Jobs, and they're also very successful.”

“Leapfrog innovation — consistent, constant, ridiculous leapfrog innovation — only happens within a dictatorship,” Kutcher said. “Any time you try to do something really innovative, most people aren't going to understand it until after they experience it. So when you're developing in innovation, you have to be a dictator. You don't have to be a (jerk) dictator, but you do have to be a dictator.”

Are the best bosses in the entertainment business dictators?

“This is a dangerous conversation,” Gad laughed.

“Some of them are and some of them aren't,” Kutcher said. “I know some actors that have to become a (jerk) just to be real. They have to work themselves into a full-blown frenzy to be real in a situation. And some people can just, like, (snaps fingers) do it and turn it on and then (snaps) turn it off. I think some bosses, in order to get something creatively flowing for themselves, have to go off the handle.”

“No matter what the business is, there are people that operate in chaos better than they do in peace,” Stern said. “They just need the chaos around them to fully find their own focus, and so they cause a lot of chaos so that they can see straight.”

And, no, Stern doesn't see himself as a dictator director.

“I'm more of a collaborator,” he said. “(There's) a lot of insecurity and anxiety that can go on (among actors), and if you don't do your best to try to create an environment where someone can get there and do it, I don't see any other way. But I hear there are a lot of dictators.”

Ashton Kutcher, dictator?

“Depends,” Kutcher said.

On?

“On whether there's value in it in the moment.”

In terms of acting, producing, being an entrepreneur, or just life?

“I would say I'm 90 percent collaborative in everything I do, and 10 percent of the time I just make the call,” Kutcher said. “I would say as an actor it depends on what the scene is that day (laughs). If the scene is requiring one to be a (jerk), I might be a little bit more (jerky) than I would want to be.”

So he got to be (jerky) on this movie?

“Occasionally.”

mcaro@tribune.com

Twitter @MarkCaro

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